By Barbara Riddle
John Cassavetes, the Stonewall Inn and the end of the Cold War are all connected in my mind by two words. Two words that describe what we badly need during these politically insane times: resistance and hope; hope and resistance.
My thoughts were triggered during a book reading/signing I recently attended, a launch for an inspiring picture book for children about the uprising at the Stonewall Inn in the Village in 1969. This was of special interest to me, as my father lived on Washington Place, less than two blocks from the Stonewall Inn, which I must have passed hundreds of times walking weekly to and from his apartment and whatever temporary rental my mother and I were inhabiting in the West Village on Perry, Bank or West 11th (we moved often). It was always a treat, walking up the four flights to his sunny one-bedroom place with the skylight in the living room, right next to the church on the corner. Only a few blocks away were all our favorite places: the Blue Mill for sirloin burgers, the 8th Street Playhouse for French movies, Washington Square Park for toasted almond Good Humor bars. And, of course, the magazine section of the Sheridan Square pharmacy in a little triangle-shaped venue opposite the Stonewall Inn. If I was lucky, my father would buy me another glossy oversize “Pogo the Possum” paperback to add to my collection of cartoonist Walt Kelly’s scintillating eviscerations of the political scandals of the 1950’s—the conformist society, the McCarthy witch hunts. Did I “Go Pogo”? And how.
And did my father frequent the Stonewall Inn at night? I don’t know, but his suicide in 1963 might have been avoided if the revolution that started in the Stonewall Inn that June evening in 1969 (commemorated by this new children’s book) had occurred earlier. His life, I now believe, was dominated by fear—fear of being found out; fear of being “queer—weird, strange, not normal.”
Similarly, our lives as teenagers in the 1950’s were dominated by fear; fear of horrific mass casualties caused by an atomic bomb being dropped mistakenly—or on purpose—by Russian bombers. And yet…we found joy in so many things, when we weren’t being brainwashed by the daily mass media to fear the Bomb. Going through my old papers the other day, I found a letter I had sent to my father, returned to me after his death. Bursting with excitement, I gushed on blue air mail paper about being chosen, along with other high school editors, to attend a press conference featuring John Cassavetes and celebrating his first feature role in the recently released Edge of the City. For me at 15, life was just opening up and exploding with possibilities. Cassavetes went on to become an iconic actor/independent filmmaker, resisting the Hollywood system and paying for his films with money earned from big studios in Hollywood and also from small private investors who believed in him. He fought for his own vision. And he won!
Now it’s 2019. New York City was not destroyed by an atomic bomb; the gay rights movement has had so many successes that a gay man in a same-sex marriage is a 2020 presidential contender. Several women are too. We’ve achieved the milestone of our first African-American president. The Internet is overflowing with amazing independent film efforts, long and short, distributed outside the old studio system. The racial and gender monopoly of white males in film, theater, and literature is cracking daily.
There are still myriad challenges, of course. When the hell haven’t there been?
The Berlin Wall has been down for 30 years. Think of Stonewall, think of the Velvet Revolution in Prague. Give thanks for the young climate change activists. Support local newspapers! Sanity will prevail. I truly believe it, but not if we give up.
Work for change. Hope. But mainly, resist. We can’t lose. We won’t lose.
Native Greenwich Villager Barbara Riddle is a frequent contributor to WestView News Find out more about her work at www.barbarariddle.com. Information on her novel, The Girl Pretending to Read Rilke, is at www.girlpretending.com. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org